Setting off on a 22-mile walk in the Black Mountains the morning after a friend’s 60th birthday party when, for once, I wasn’t ‘Des’ probably wasn’t the greatest idea in the world. Oh, and I’d just happened to run my first ever trail half marathon earlier in the day too. I was tired and ever-so-slightly hungover; on this bleak, overcast day the last place I wanted to be heading was the mountains, Black or otherwise.
Harri parked on a wide section of lane in the hamlet of Stanton. Having assured me we weren’t heading to any of our familiar haunts like Llanthony or Patrishow, I was somewhat confused to see those place names appearing on signposts. All would be revealed later, Harri murmured as he strode along the lane.
The weather wasn’t looking massively promising, though nowhere near as bad as the heavy rain and thick fog we’d run in yesterday.
After following a narrow road for a short distance, we joined a footpath weaving through tall bracken. We’ve had a lot of problems battling our way through footpaths recently, the scheduled maintenance of footpaths being yet another casualty of austerity; however, as we were now within the boundary of the Brecon Beacons National Park, surely we could anticipate vegetation-free and well-maintained footpaths. It seemed not! Regular footpath maintenance might well have been the case once upon a time, but the evidence on the ground suggested those halcyon days were long gone. While it was mostly possible to distinguish the line of the footpath on the ground, it was frequently impassable due to towering bracken, numerous fallen branches and ground-level brambles.
I struggled to keep up with Harri, in part because as soon as he was more than a few metres ahead of me he disappeared completely in head-height vegetation. After several sections when we were forced to get down on our knees and crawl underneath the low-laying branches of several hawthorn trees, we decided it best to abandon our planned route … it was just too dangerous on this steeply sloping terrain when any moment a misplaced foot could send you tumbling downhill. On the bright side, this is the place to come if it’s mistletoe you’re after because there was plenty of it growing up here (and by December, the bracken will have died away).
Having admitted defeat, we did an about-turn and slowly clambered back up the overgrown slope. We’d taken 48 minutes to walk just over a mile!
Harri said things must be getting bad when you can’t even rely on a National Park to clear its footpaths. We’d wasted a lot of time and energy getting nowhere fast … not ideal when we’d set off later than usual. If I’d been walking alone, I’d probably have abandoned the walk at this point, but after a quick look at the map, Harri worked out an alternative route down into the valley, which took us along a pretty, wooded sunken lane which historically connected two farms on the slopes.
We reached Coed y Cerrig (it means ‘wood of stones’), a place we’ve visited before and always liked. A century ago, the road that runs through the nature reserve was a railway line transporting workers and materials, including local timber, to the Grwyne Fawr Dam which was built between 1912 and 1928. The valley also provided timber during the First World War, apparently for the manufacture of clogs!
Like the nearby footpaths, the boardwalks we walked on were also showing signs of neglect with vegetation growing thick through the timbers. So much in Wales is publicly funded with grants that I am becoming increasingly fearful for the future of our built and natural heritage under successive Tory governments.
It was dark here under the trees and there was no sign of the promised sunshine. Earlier BBC weathermen had predicted an improvement in the weather but there was now rain in the air.
We emerged from the trees and came across a glorious pond complete with wooden jetty and a fountain feature. It seemed strangely out of place in these wild parts, but is located within the 25-acres of gardens belonging to The Pant, a beautiful old stone property owned by horticulturist Camilla Swift and her husband since the early nineties. The footpath didn’t pass through the more formal section of garden but meandered around the property, past several piles of logs which had been cleverly shaped into pig-sty-shaped domes.
As our walk progressed, we realised that almost every stone property of any size had been bought, renovated and extended. Seriously, this valley – so close to the Wales-England border – was full of the kind of palatial, stylish homes that most of us can only dream about. When we sat down for a quick lunch on the hillside, it was on a perfectly manicured grass verge next to two beautifully restored farmhouses with stunning views of the valley and Craig Mawr. Here, it was mountain bikers who whizzed past us, not tractors.
With no sign of the promised sunshine and the clouds overhead looking decided grey, we decided to cut short our loop. Normally, I’d have been disappointed, but I was feeling increasingly lethargic and listless and just wanted to sit down.
We followed a beautiful old track alongside the Groyne y Fechan stream, crossing the water on an old stone bridge before heading up a very, steep rutted track to Llanbedr. We were a little bit alarmed to see a Landrover bouncing down the track ahead of us and astounded when the driver stopped to ask us if the track ahead was passable. He’d already driven down the steepest section; I couldn’t see how he could possibly turn around on this track or even reverse back up.
His partner and child were in the vehicle so Harri considered the question and told the driver he should be able to reach the stream below with care (they did, because we saw them wading in the stream later).
Fortunately, the Red Lion was open today (it wasn’t on our last visit here). It was nice to get in out of the relentless drizzle and we settled ourselves down in the bar. When a regular arrived, we found ourselves being entertained by the banter between him and the landlady. We couldn’t help laughing when we heard her telling him about an incident that had happened the previous evening. Her husband had gone down to the cellar to change the beer and had accidentally locked himself in. No worries, he thought, I’ve got my mobile phone on me, I’ll just ring the bar and ask my wife to come down and let me out. Unfortunately, the bar was busy and every time he phoned, she told him she was far too busy serving to stop and talk!
Our homeward route took us through Forest Coalpit, an unimaginative but intriguing place name that will always remain in my memory from my Monmouthshire council days when I answered numerous press enquiries about the auction of a council-owned property there (I’m pretty sure it was the old school house but don’t quote me on that one!).
The weather was fast deteriorating and by the time we got back to the car we were just relieved to be heading home. There’s no doubt the Black Mountains landscape is stunning and, in nicer weather, a walk through the Grwyne Fawr valley would have been glorious. Unfortunately, a combination of tired legs, late night and bad weather had contrived against us today.
Here’s the route we ended up walking. At 18.15km it’s considerably shorter than our planned hike.